The past few months have been a whirlwind, causing a myriad of emotions often in a single day. However, we are entering a period of reflection that is guiding us in moving forward in our work with young children. I have had several conversations recently with managers and practitioners about what they feel they have learnt about their practice and provision, in the light of having had to make changes as a consequence of COVID and government guidance. The positives are very much focused on key carer attachment, settling, and emotional well being of the children.
Settings found that operating in 'bubbles' enabled practitioners to get to know the children much better and be more effective in supporting their individual needs. Although 'bubbles' are no longer needed, many are going to take forward the lessons learnt from the experience. There was concern about settling children, with parents required to drop off at the entrance to the setting. However, time and time again settings have said ‘you know what, it is actually better!’ They have identified that this is because children don’t have anxious parents hovering around them, they come into a room that is calmer, where the sole focus is the children and not the parents too. Many settings are now looking at different and more purposeful ways of engaging with parents.
In relation to settling, it has been found that for babies of around 7-8 months and older it has been much harder. These babies have only experienced being at home, and to suddenly find themselves in a nursery, with the sensory overload that can bring, has been overwhelming. The timing in their development stage also coincides with the stranger anxiety babies begin to develop at around 8 months of age.
What can our training focus on?
Children's emotional well-being
As well as reflecting on what we have learnt from our own settings, it is critical we look at the bigger picture in terms of the experience of lockdown and how it has, in some cases, impacted on children and families. We are all aware of the discussions and concerns about the socio-economic impact. In a webinar on 23rd July, Alison Morton Head of Policy at the Institute of Health Visiting, spoke about the secondary impact of COVID19 on babies and young children and the emerging need of families who have become vulnerable as a direct result of the pandemic. The secondary impact included:
· Mental health – stress/anxiety (of the child and/or parent)
· Couple conflict
· Domestic violence and abuse
· Alcohol consumption
· Food poverty
· Increased unemployment
· Child protection/ child in need – increase in safeguarding referrals.
What immediately struck me about this list was how it reflects many of the risk factors associated with emotional resilience. This knowledge needs to inform how we move forward, our awareness levels and related training needs. We need to be equipped to support the children in our care effectively.
Everything I have just mentioned connects together to give clear direction for potential training and training that will be seen as necessary. A focus on emotional well being/ emotional resilience will mean we are supporting children in the best way possible. Much of this we do as part of good practice, however as the discovery made through the 'bubble' system of stronger key carer relationships shows, there is always room to develop and improve.
Emotional resilience is built on protective factors. Whilst families play a key role in promoting these protective factors, the early years setting is additionally significant. It is therefore essential that early years practitioners have a clear understanding of their role in supporting emotional resilience by being aware of the risk factors and the protective factors, and how they themselves make a difference to the children. This knowledge can be provided through training which needs to be linked to a focus on children’s emotional well being as well as reflection on how to support children’s positive self esteem. If training isn’t an option, reading on the subject can be equally helpful, followed up by sharing thoughts and reflections with others.
Reflecting on Play and the work of experts
As I reflected on the settling of the babies who had lived much of their life in lockdown, I revisited the work of the wonderful Elinor Goldschmied. I recalled this quote, which to me has always been very powerful:
“We can never remind ourselves too often that a child, particularly a very young and almost dependent one, is the only person in the nursery who cannot understand why they are there.”
This statement seems so relevant for babies who have only been at home, with limited socialising. There has been a shift in their experiences so there needs to be a change in our approach and practice.
Elinor Goldschmied’s pioneering work focused primarily on children under three, including the key person system. She is also responsible for introducing treasure baskets and heuristic play. Training to enable understanding of her research and work is always valuable, now perhaps more so than ever.
We can’t think about children without considering the significance of play. Play is essential for children to make sense of things. They use play, especially play in the home corner and role play, as a means to unravel, pull apart, re-experience and understand their world. At a time when the world has changed for all of us, play becomes even more significant for children. Many settings have described children exploring and reflecting issues connected with the pandemic in their play, giving staff an insight into their thoughts, understanding, fears and anxieties. Perhaps now is a time for us to remind ourselves of what their play tells us about children and to revisit the findings of the key exponents of the importance of play, such as Froebel and Isaacs.
Staff well-being and understanding Mental Health
As well as thinking about children, we need to also think about ourselves. All of us have experienced something extraordinary and our ability to cope and be resilient has been tested. It is therefore essential that managers and leaders in settings feel able to support their staff teams whilst also supporting each other. There are lots of resources out there to help you to help yourself and others, such as www.mind.org.uk. and www.acas.org.uk .Training courses can be beneficial as well.
On their framework for positive mental health at work, ACAS state that if employers are visibly committed to positive mental health, if managers are informed and open to conversations with their staff and if individuals are self aware and ask for help when needed, a shared goal of positive well being and productive workplaces can be achieved. That isn’t going to happen overnight and there needs to be a process and understanding by all for it to become embedded. Again, whilst this has always been important, it is now even more so.
Mental health is something we all have. When we enjoy good mental health, we have a sense of purpose and direction, the energy to do the things we want to do, and the ability to deal with the challenges that happen in our lives. Our mental health doesn’t always stay the same, it can fluctuate as circumstances change and as you move through different stages in your life. Accessing training to support mentally healthy workplaces is valuable. Consider undertaking mental health first aid training, or training to enable you to become more mental health aware.
Anti-racism and unconscious bias
We must all address diversity in our settings and think about what anti racist practice looks like in the early years. It is very easy to be complacent and think it is something ‘you do’, but it is something that needs to be embedded in your setting's ethos and culture and in your own life. How is diversity reflected, how is it understood, how do you know when to challenge and how to challenge? Training will help you to understand more fully and examine unconscious bias.
Whilst everything I have mentioned has been in relation to our pandemic world, it is not new: it has always been important. In the light of this, we should not overlook the regular 'run of the mill' training to develop and support practice, and the benefit of training needs analysis, looking at what else is currently flagged in our settings.
Training is about reflection and self-development. It is about challenging yourself to know more, to do better and to be more effective in your role. Out of necessity some working practices have had to change. A positive of the pandemic may well be that we begin to appreciate these changes will ultimately improve our practice. This positive needs to be taken forward, so that we begin to look more closely at other aspects of practice and continually strive to improve. Training is a tool that can help us to take these steps forward. The second positive take away is realising that we should reflect on every aspect of our practice, including those areas we don’t feel or realise could change for the better. Perhaps you can begin by asking the question 'is this being done in this way for the child or for some other reason?' and see where that takes you.
Now is the time to reflect on how we can change and adapt practice. Change and adaption have become part of our everyday life and our minds are more attuned to the processes involved; and that can only be a good thing.
Edited by Jules